Faith schools: the evidence

Over a third of schools in Britain are faith schools, yet their place within public education systems remains deeply contested.

Proponents of faith schools claim that they improve parental choice, achieve superior educational outcomes, and are better at promoting moral values. The evidence from the research strongly contests these claims.

Such research is often piecemeal and difficult to access, making it hard to gain a comprehensive view of the debate. This research bank is intended as a valuable resource for policymakers, politicians, academics and anyone else interested in the ongoing debate around faith schools in Britain.

Each entry provides an at-a-glance overview of the key evidence and central arguments made in a different study. The research bank is arranged chronologically within a number of key sections: social cohesion; performance; school choice; values; and public opinion.

Together, the evidence provides a compelling and comprehensive case against state-funded faith schools.

Social cohesion

The evidence in this section shows that faith schools undermine social cohesion by segregating pupils on religious, ethnic, racial and social grounds. By reducing contact between people from different social groups, faith schools foster exclusionary in-group dynamics that are detrimental to the wellbeing of a liberal, multicultural society. This evidence strongly undermines claims by supporters that faith schools facilitate social integration, promote a communal religious ethos and help to integrate minority faiths into the life of the nation.

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The Ties that Bind: Citizenship and Civic Engagement in the 21st Century

House of Lords Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement (April 2018), Report of Session 2017–19, HL Paper 118.

This report by the House of Lords Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement examined a wide range of issues on the theme of citizenship, from national citizenship service, volunteering, democratic participation and civil society. In respect of faith schools, the report found that a majority were adhering to, and promoting, fundamental British values, but expressed concerns about a small number in which there had been 'a serious failure to act in accordance with Shared British Values'. The report also noted its unease with proposals to lift the 50% cap on the allocation of school places according to a religious criterion, stating that: 'There are concerns that this could cause greater social segregation within faith schools'. The report went on to state that: 'Any change in the rules governing admissions criteria to faith schools should ensure that they do not increase social segregation'.

Link to report

Is tolerance of faiths helpful in English school policy? Reification, complexity, and values education

R. Bowie (2017), Oxford Review of Education 43(5): 536–549.

This article discusses a range of issues around the tolerance of faiths in a democratic society. This issue has become more pressing with government requirements for schools to teach and promote British values, of which tolerance is a critical part. The author highlights the way in which government often shifts the burden of translating tolerance policy onto teachers and school leaders, using the threat of inspections and sanctions, and claims that this leads to a simplification of complex issues (tolerance of faith may be seen as a virtue but can also be seen as a means of sustaining inequalities in areas such as gender identity).

Although the article does not address the subject of faith schools directly, the author nevertheless engages with one of the central themes of the faith schools debate, pointing out that: 'While tolerance of religion is necessary in plural liberal democracies, emphasising religion contributes to a reification that religion is the determining identity criteria of concern which may have the unintended consequence of polarising interests and communities'.

A copy of this article is available as a Word document from the repository at the University of Canterbury. Click here to access.

Understanding school segregation in England, 2011 to 2016

iCoCo Foundation, SchoolDash and The Challenge (2017).

This study, which was carried out by the iCoCo Foundation, SchoolDash and The Challenge, draws on the 2016 school census and covers nearly every school in England for which data were available (excluding independent and unregistered schools). The study set out to explore the reasons behind school segregation, to assess whether schools were segregated by socio-economic status and ethnicity and the extent and nature of these trends from 2011 to 2016. The study examined trends in a variety of school types and according to local authority area.

The study finds that faith schools at primary level are more ethnically segregated than non-faith schools, with 28.8% of faith schools being classified in this way compared to 24.5% of non-faith schools. This discrepancy was particularly pronounced for Roman Catholic schools, of which 26.7% have a low proportion of white British students, compared with 9.1% of non-faith schools and 9.9% of all schools. Non-Christian faith schools (though small in number) fared even worse, with 84.5% being segregated. The report found a similar picture at secondary level. Schools of non-Christian faiths were more likely to under-sample white British students, with 64.5% of these schools falling into this category, compared to an average for all schools of 13.4%.

Similar discrepancies were found for intakes of disadvantaged pupils. Just 4.4% of faith schools at primary level were found to have a high intake of pupils eligible for free school meals compared with nearby schools, versus 11.4% for non-faith schools. This was particularly pronounced for Roman Catholic schools (of which 38.3% had a low intake of eligible pupils compared to 17.1% of non-faith schools) and non-Christian faith schools (of which 63.8% had a low intake and none at all had an intake with significantly higher numbers). A similar relationship was found at secondary level. A total of 23.8% of Roman Catholic schools had a low intake of pupils eligible for free school meals, compared with 17.2% of non-faith schools. A total of 43.8% of schools of non-Christian faiths had a low intake, with none having a high intake compared to other schools around them.

A PDF copy of this report is available to download. Click here to access.

Mixed Signals:

The Discrepancy Between What the Church Preaches and What it Practises About Religious Selection at its State-Funded Schools. A report by the Accord Coalition for Inclusive Education for the Fair Admissions Campaign (November 2017).

This report examines the admissions policies of state-funded faith schools. It shows that half of Church of England faith schools were operating a discriminatory policy and challenges the view, often stated by the Church of England, that its faith schools are inclusive, community schools. The report notes that: 'at best, the inclusive assertions by national Church figures are inaccurate and therefore misleading'. Detailed research by the Fair Admissions Campaign in 2013 found that 49.7% of places at Church of England secondary schools could be filled through religiously discriminatory selection criteria. The figure for Catholic schools was 99.8%.

The report goes to show how religious selection leads to social segregation on religious, ethnic and socio-economic grounds. Using the 2013 figures, it shows that Church of England secondary schools with an admissions policy selecting for 100% of pupils on a faith criteria admitted 34.6% fewer pupils who were entitled to free schools meals than would be expected if they admitted local children. On the theme of social cohesion, it goes on to claim that:

Schools are the state-funded institutions that should be doing most to prepare people for life in an increasingly diverse society … schools should not purposely separate children from one another by religion. Schools should not help entrench and create fault-lines for a Britain that already needs to work at social cohesion and does not need extra religious tensions added to existing ones.

A PDF copy of this report is available to download. Click here to access.

Segregation in education

T. Hannay (22 March, 2017), SchoolDash.

This blog post for SchoolDash examines issues of ethnic and socio-economic segregation in schools, drawing on data published in a report by the iCoCo Foundation, SchoolDash and The Challenge. A number of factors behind segregation are identified, including house prices and academic selection. Faith schools were found to be a particular site of segregation. The data show that, overall, faith schools have higher levels of ethnic and socio-economic segregation than non-faith schools.

A school was said to be ethnically segregated 'if the proportion of White British pupils is more than 15 percentage points higher or lower than that in other nearby schools'. Breaking these data down for ethnicity shows that Church of England schools had similar levels of segregation to non-faith schools at primary school level, but Roman Catholic schools had higher levels of segregation and a 'substantial bias towards non-White-British pupils' at both primary and secondary school levels. The highest levels of ethnic segregation were found in non-Christian faith schools. The figures below report these findings, by 'low' and 'high' proportions of white British pupils in comparison to other schools in the local area.

Ethnic segregation in primary schools

Low High

Church of England 5.5% 18.3%

Roman Catholic 26.7% 13.9%

Other Christian 5.7% 18.9%

Non-Faith 9.1% 15.4%

All schools 9.9% 16.1%

Ethnic segregation in secondary schools

Low High

Church of England 14.6% 28.8%

Roman Catholic 25.4% 18.5%

Other Christian 14.7% 14.7%

Non-Faith 11.2% 28.4%

All schools 13.4% 27.2%

Faith schools were also found to fare worse in terms of intakes of disadvantaged pupils (as measured by their eligibility for free school meals). The highest discrepancies at primary level were found in Roman Catholic and non-Christian faith schools (both of which took a lower proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals than non-faith schools). The highest discrepancies at secondary level were found in Church of England and non-Christian faith schools. The data for free school meals are shown below, reported by comparatively 'low' and 'high' intakes in relation to neighbouring schools.

Socio-economic segregation in primary schools

Low High

Church of England 22.7% 5.1%

Roman Catholic 38.3% 2.3%

Other Christian 19.6% 8.4%

Non-Faith 17.1% 11.4%

All schools 20.8% 8.8%

Socio-economic segregation in secondary schools

Low High

Church of England 27.4% 9.9%

Roman Catholic 23.8% 3.1%

Other Christian 22.7% 14.7%

Non-Faith 17.2% 9.3%

All schools 18.8% 8.8%

Link to post

Research into Religiously Selective Admissions Criteria

Fair Admissions Campaign (2017).

This report provides a review of existing studies on the debate around faith schools and outlines research conducted by the Fair Admissions Campaign. This research found clear evidence of socio-economic and ethnic segregation. An analysis of comprehensive secondary schools found that schools without a religious character admitted 11% more pupils who were eligible for free school meals than the proportion of such pupils in their local area. In contrast, Church of England schools admitted 10% fewer, Roman Catholic schools admitted 24% fewer, Jewish secondaries 61% fewer and Muslim secondaries 25% fewer. On average, faith schools whose admissions criteria allowed for religious selection for all places admitted 27% fewer pupils from this category than would be expected if such schools were a true reflection of their local area.

In addition to this, research conducted in 2013 found that Church of England secondaries that did not select on the basis of religion took an average of 0.7% more pupils from Asian backgrounds than their local areas. In contrast, church schools that used selection for 100% of their places took an average of 1.5% fewer. Roman Catholic schools had an average of 4.4% fewer Asian pupils than would be expected given their local areas. Schools with no religious character had an average of around 1% more Asian pupils than would be expected.

A PDF copy of this report is available to download. Click here to access.

Shh … No Talking: LGBT-inclusive Sex and Relationships Education in the UK

Terrence Higgins Trust (July 2016).

This report examines the extent to which Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) is taught in UK schools. It notes that SRE is compulsory only for maintained secondary schools, meaning that primary schools, free schools and academies in England do not have to teach it. The report draws on data from an online survey of young people aged 16-25. It finds that, of those respondents that did not receive SRE: 'there were a disproportionate number who went to private, state religious and free schools'. Conversely, of those who did receive SRE, 'a disproportionate number went to state comprehensive schools'. The report goes on to note that: 'State religious schools had lower proportions of pupils reporting having been taught a variety of SRE topics. This included safe sex, sex and pleasure, consent, teenage pregnancy, the contraceptive pill, the morning after pill, condoms, STIs and oral sex'.

A PDF copy of this report is available to download. Click here to access.

The Casey Review: A Review into Opportunity and Integration

Dame Louise Casey DBE CB (December 2016), Department for Communities and Local Government.

The Casey Review was set up by the prime minister and home secretary to examine issues of integration and opportunity in isolated and deprived communities. It found, in cases where faith schools were oversubscribed and where pupils came from particular groups (especially minority faith groups), that admission policies seemed 'to play a role in reinforcing ethnic concentrations'. The report noted that the popularity of faith schools with parents meant that the abolition of state funding for faith schools would be 'unproductive', but added that: 'Segregation appears to be at its most acute in minority ethnic and minority faith communities and schools'.

A PDF copy of this report is available to download.

Click here to access.

The promotion of British values: sexual orientation equality, religion, and England’s schools

R. M. Vanderbeck and P. Johnson (2016), International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family, 30(3): 292–321.

This article argues that the inclusion of sexual orientation equality within the scope of 'British values' has given new impetus to debates about the appropriate balance between children's rights, the right of parents to provide religious direction to children, the prerogatives of faith schools and the state's legitimate interest in protecting sexual minorities. Though noting that: 'movements affirmative of sexual orientation diversity exist in many churches and religious traditions', and that: 'opposition is not limited to people of religious faith', the authors claim that faith schools are a site of contestation between morally conservative religious interests and advocates of sexual orientation equality. Thus, religious actors and interests 'remain at the forefront of resistance to reforms that would make schools more inclusive' in terms of sexual orientation.

The article goes on to highlight an unresolved tension at the heart of the government's approach, between its assertions that sexual orientation equality is a universal British value to be promoted in all schools and a desire to keep discussion of sexual orientation issues within an ambiguous framework that is treated flexibly based on the particular religious character of schools. As the authors note: 'This raises challenging questions regarding whether the practice of a faith school advocating heterosexual marriage as the only morally sanctioned form of sexual expression could ever be said to fully comply with requirements to promote respect and toleration for non-heterosexual people'.

Link to journal

A PDF copy of this paper is also available through the University of Leeds institutional repository. Click here to access.

Non-governmental religious schools in Europe: institutional opportunities, associational freedoms, and contemporary challenges

M. Maussen and V. Bader 2015), Comparative Education, 51(1): 1–21.

This paper focuses on faith schools in a European context and highlights some of the key factors driving change in this area. These include structural pressures on religious schools (such as transformations around age, religion, ethnicity and secularisation), political forces such as the mediatisation and personalisation of politics, changes in party systems and electoral change, as well as the growth of "secular progressive" voices in public debate, transformations in the relationship between state and society (e.g. changes in the governance of domains traditionally of relevance to religion, such as health and education), and processes of Europeanisation, in which cultural and religious diversity is embedded in supranational human rights regimes, such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission (ECHR).

Against this backdrop, the study highlights a rise in public funding for religious schools across Europe, and questions why this is taking place. One explanation is that the demand for faith-based schooling is on the rise due to the idea that faith schools obtain better educational outcomes. While much of the paper consists of a broad overview of the macrodynamics around the European debate on faith schools, the author also argues that religious schools function as domains of exclusion, creating problems for those attempting to justify continued state funding.

Link to journal

A PDF copy of this paper is also available on ResearchGate. Click here to access.